Hannah Wei

@herlifeinpixels

Swipe Right to Let Me Take Your Profile Photo

What I learned when I ran a Tinder social experiment and matched with thousands of people

Early last year when I moved to San Francisco, nearly everyone who was single (or in some cases, not) was swiping their lives away on multiple dating apps. I’d just returned from living among communities of Southeast Asia. It was a huge culture-shock that even something simple like meeting people to hang out with would be done through an interface, but these were the rules of the game in Silicon Valley.

One day something clicked: My roommates, who had been using my photos on their dating profiles, were getting lovely compliments from their matches. So I decided to try a little social experiment and created a Tinder profile. I offered my services to matches looking to upgrade from their bad selfies.

My Tinder profile. Thanks Evgeny Tchebotarev for this shot!

I matched people by hand at first. Not only was that time consuming, but my bias for beautiful photos made it hard to swipe right on people with bad pictures who could actually use my services.

So I wrote a bot. In a few dozen lines of python, I had a command line script to automate the daunting task of me cringing and swiping right. It matched with everyone within a GPS radius. Later I made it more selective in filtering by age. In mere minutes over a thousand matches were made. Damn, either my experiment was going to be a success or I had just committed social suicide.

Hmm, this Alexis guy sounds familiar…

To mimic the most common behaviour of women on Tinder and to avoid getting reported, my bot did not solicit anyone. It simply did the swiping and waited for the other party to initiate. I had an average of 800 to 1500 matches per day. Out of those, anywhere between 100 to 150 of matches started a conversation. Unsurprisingly, most people were interested in a date, but this actually made filtering easier. Out of those 100–150 messages, 2 to 5 people sent upfront inquiries about having their photos taken, not a bad conversion rate for hacked up code and an Instagram of my friends’ faces!

Yes, I did respond to non-photo inquiries, especially those who offered up their own crafts: seafood chef, surf lessons, stamp maker, gourmet edibles. And this guy:

Passing the Turing test in flying colours.

I totally understand that booking a photoshoot over Tinder is awkward. At first I tried to communicate professionally, but that didn’t quite suit the context of Tinder and actually created more cognitive dissonance. That made me realize that the strength of Tinder was in setting the tone for people to open up about their interests and needs. Instead of sounding like booking a studio slot, the conversations needed to feel like discussing an adventure and time to get together. Because of gender dynamics, men tended to take initiative in conversations, which made it easier to arrange logistics.

Adventure and Intimacy

As an urban exploration junkie, I planned routes around the city in iconic and offbeat places.

To my delight the folks I shot with looked a lot better than what their original profile pictures implied. However, most men are camera shy. The first 30 minutes of the shoot was always the hardest when both parties were not used to one another’s company, never mind me pointing a camera at them. Inspired by my urban exploration expeditions, I devised a plan:

I’m your sidekick for the day. We meet 30 minutes before the golden hour. We will venture into the hidden alleyways of Chinatown. We’ll grab a drink and swing by an old library and pretend to be sophisticated in your dress shirt. Then we’ll climb up to a rooftop terrace and watch the traffic go by the city. The sun will be setting by then, and we’ll make our way down to the pier while sharing stories.

Did that sound like a date? Yes, it was supposed to be.

This is where they tell me about the time they moved cities to start a new life.

To me, good photo sessions are no different than good dates. Good dates are playful. Think about how many coffee dates that didn’t inspire you to be fully expressive. How might your actions, expressions and conversations be carried out differently if you were suddenly standing on a rooftop pretending to be a super villain with a partner in crime? Any good dating profile photo should reflect a subject’s most interesting and authentic self. I could only capture my partner like that when we were both caught up in the moment.

You have to create a moment in order to inspire people to fall into it.

It wasn’t about the camera. It wasn’t even about striking a good pose. It was about finding a unique connection through shared adventure, and being so effortlessly caught up in the moment that one couldn’t help but want to remember every second of it with photos.

But was it all for vanity?

When I first started, I thought people would only approach me to improve their dating prospects. I was wrong. There were inquiries from artists wanting to showcase themselves making art, to a kinky couple documenting their relationship, to an extreme sport athlete, to gifts for someone’s significant other (don’t ask why a person in that situation would be on Tinder in the first place). What people requested photos for reflected the pieces of their lives that they valued and wished for others to see.

My favourite subject was a young US Marine vet with the name Jedi etched on his dog tag. When I asked why, he said it was because he subscribed no religion and hoped to join The Force if he died in war. After returning from his last deployment, he suffered from loneliness and low self-esteem. He was looking for photos outside of the uniform to hang in his room as a reminder to feel proud of himself at the end of the day. After our shoot, the Jedi treated me to a lovely dinner by the waterfront. He told me a story of when he flew to the hospital on the last day of his deployment and held his mother as she waited for his return before passing away. I felt like crying then.

If you didn’t swipe right on him before, you should now.

Automation, dating apps, text interfaces — they can make it easy for people treat each other like disposable fragments of data. We’d often forget that behind an algorithm-enhanced interaction is a living, breathing human being who likely lived through experiences that you’ve never dreamed of.

Carrying out this social experiment not only allowed me to help people transform into more confident versions of themselves on camera, but also taught me how to dig deep into human interactions to bring out each person’s individuality. It was amazing to see my new friends and clients share my photos with their loved ones and receive heart-warming responses.

While having one’s photos taken is considered a luxury, I feel privileged that folks have entrusted me with capturing the very things that made them feel alive. Social technology like Tinder can make us more connected and interesting, but can also inflict feelings of loneliness and misunderstanding. In these expressive moments when we do open up to a connection, we end up showing the world and the stranger beside us the best version of ourselves.

That’s the secret to great dating profile photos.

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Hannah is a product designer and a portrait photographer. You can follow her devious adventures on Instagram, and Twitter.

Need a smashing profile photo? Shoot an email to: hannah[at]herlifeinpixels[dot]com

Bro please.
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